Beyond toys, human-carrying drones are on their way

LAS VEGAS -- If you're used to thinking of drones as a passing fad, last week's CES gadget show should give you second thoughts.

See Full Article

Tiny, self-piloted copters promise to buzzily follow you around like something out of a Neal Stephenson cyberpunk novel. New drones that could find lost wilderness adventurers or help them see out above treetops; others purport to carry a human passenger at the touch of a button.

None of this, of course, will be happening overnight. Limited battery life means that many commercial models can't fly for more than about 20 minutes at best. Manufacturers haven't yet figured out the best way to keep many tiny drones where they ought to be, given that GPS positioning sucks too much power for their minuscule batteries. Obstacle avoidance systems that would let small drones pilot themselves are still under development. And looming over the entire field are new government rules intended to keep people safe, but which may also slow innovation.

So far, none of those obstacles are slowing down an industry that appears to be in full lift-off. The Consumer Technology Association estimates that U.S. consumer drone spending will more than double to $953 million next year. ABI Research believes the global market for drones will hit $8.4 billion in 2018, with users ranging from the military and oil companies to farmers, journalists, and backyard tinkerers.

As drone capabilities continue to grow, drones may become a mass-market product for average consumers in about three years, says Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst of research firm Moor Insights & Strategy.

"You should be able to get a drone that can effectively follow you, not run into things, and find things on its own," he says. "That's pretty cool."

That's assuming, of course, that you're not commuting to work in one. At CES, Chinese manufacturer Ehang Inc. unveiled a large drone that it said can carry a human passenger at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. The four-armed quadcopter has been on more than 100 flights, mostly in wooded areas of Guangzhou, according to Chief Marketing Officer Derrick Xiong. Some -- he didn't say how many -- have carried a human passenger.

Federal aviation regulators declined to comment on Ehang's human-carrying drone, saying the company hasn't submitted any proposal to authorities. The Federal Aviation Administration advised an Ehang representative at the show to contact its unmanned aircraft system office.

In contrast with the bigger drones, smaller ones were also on display. On the small drone front, Kickstarter-funded Fleye envisions its camera-bearing flying sphere as a kind of personal videographer that follows you around street corners; you'll be able to switch between settings such as "selfie," "panorama" and "virtual tripod." And because it's encased in what looks like a lightweight football helmet, its propellers pose less risk to bystanders.

"Instead of doing collision detection and avoidance, we just make sure if it collides, it won't hurt," says CEO Laurent Eschenauer.

Toy drone maker Spin Master Inc. showed off an augmented-reality game in which kids use a real-life drone to rescue tiny virtual people, put out fires and fight aliens. In essence, they're interacting with a virtual world overlaid on the real world; they can see the virtual elements on a tablet they're using to control the drone.

Robolink Inc. wants you to learn how to program using its "CoDrone," a flying electronics kit you can instruct to jump off a table into someone's hand with a simple line of code. CEO Hansol Hong describes the educational product as "where Khan Academy meets drone."

But the reach of some small drones still exceeds their grasp. Companies like San Jose-based UNorth Inc., maker of the Mota; Newark, Delaware-based Onagofly; and South Korean ByRobot Co. all said they're still tweaking the system needed to make tiny drones weighing less than half a pound follow their owners.

For instance, ByRobot co-founder James Hong said its engineers still need several months to modify the way its drone uses wireless Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals. The changes should help maintain a reliable connection to the user's smartphone, making possible the "follow me" function in the absence of GPS, which the company considers too power-hungry for smaller drones.

With the potential for millions of new flying objects buzzing around the country in coming years, the FAA is working on new drone-safety rules. By this spring, the agency plans to unveil regulations to allow streamlined approval of commercial drone uses, instead of the case-by-case system it uses now. Last month, the FAA began requiring registration for drones weighing between about half a pound and 55 pounds.

Even as they come up with new rules, regulators don't know exactly where the technology is headed, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta acknowledged in a speech to CES attendees.

"This is not going to be a finite process, where one day we sit back and say OK, we're done," Huerta said in a speech Wednesday. "Maintaining the highest levels of safety requires us to constantly evolve in our approach."

------

Follow AP Business Writer Ryan Nakashima at https://twitter.com/rnakashi . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/ryan-nakashima



Advertisements

Latest Tech & Science News

  • Florida zoo staff hand-raises abandoned baby kangaroo

    Tech & Science CTV News
    VIERA, Fla. -- An abandoned baby kangaroo is back with her mob after being hand-raised by the staff at a Florida zoo. Brevard Zoo officials said in a news release that Lilly, who was born in August, was found abandoned on the floor of the zoo's habitat Jan. Source
  • Officials to examine North Atlantic right whale to determine cause of death

    Tech & Science CTV News
    NORWAY, P.E.I. - Marine mammal experts plan to examine a dead North Atlantic right whale today after it was pulled ashore in P.E.I. in a bid to determine what killed it and several other whales in recent weeks. Source
  • Think turning your smartphone off means you're not distracted? Think again, study says

    Tech & Science CBC News
    It's been 10 years since the first iPhone was sold in stores — and the millions of people who now own one likely won't dispute that having the internet, social media and countless apps at their fingertips can sometimes be a distraction. Source
  • From prosthetic limbs to baby bumps, new Xbox avatars a move toward greater diversity

    Tech & Science CBC News
    Xbox has long been a leader in the gaming industry, but the latest innovation for Microsoft's console is not a game concept, or even a new piece of technology. Instead, Xbox has introduced a range of customizable options for avatars, including prosthetic limbs, a wheelchair, even a baby bump. Source
  • Orcas' failed pregnancies linked to scarce food: study

    Tech & Science CTV News
    SEATTLE - Endangered killer whales that frequent the inland waters of Washington state are having pregnancy problems because they cannot find enough fish to eat, according to a new study. Researchers analyzed hormones in excrement collected at sea and found that more than two-thirds of orca pregnancies failed over a seven-year period. Source
  • Prehistoric stone fish trap discovered on Alaska island

    Tech & Science CTV News
    KODIAK, Alaska -- Archaeologists have discovered a prehistoric fish trap constructed of rock walls near the mouth of a salmon stream on Alaska's Kodiak Island. The trap is in a lower intertidal zone that's covered by ocean water at high tide and exposed at low tide, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported Tuesday. Source
  • Vancouver could become 'mixed reality' hub: Microsoft president

    Tech & Science CTV News
    VANCOUVER -- Microsoft president Brad Smith says Vancouver could become a hub for "mixed reality" or virtual reality technology that merges with the physical world. Smith says the estimated revenue for mixed reality video games, including both hardware and software, is expected to top $12 billion by 2025. Source
  • Microsoft president pushes Vancouver-Seattle tech corridor despite NAFTA doubt

    Tech & Science CTV News
    VANCOUVER -- The president of Microsoft is pushing to make a Vancouver-Seattle technology corridor a success, despite the uncertainty around cross-border trade posed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. Brad Smith was in Vancouver on Wednesday to promote the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an agreement signed by British Columbia and Washington state that aims to grow high-tech industries and strengthen collaboration across the region. Source
  • Canada relatively unscathed as cyberattack continues to spread

    Tech & Science CBC News
    As a cyberattack continued to spread among nations and corporations on Wednesday, the identity and motives of the attackers remain a mystery. Ports, hospitals and banks around the globe have been hit by a version of ransomware being called ExPetr, similar to Petya but with a different functionality. Source
  • How artificial intelligence is taking on ransomware

    Tech & Science CTV News
    NEW YORK -- Twice in the space of six weeks, the world has suffered major attacks of ransomware -- malicious software that locks up photos and other files stored on your computer, then demands money to release them. Source